Beyond (cell-based) meat: funding the future of food with Big Idea Ventures
by Zheng-Shan Chong
Big Idea Ventures is a venture capital firm investing in innovative solutions to global challenges in food production. The New York- and Singapore-based VC runs an accelerator program in both locations and began raising more than $50M for its first fund in March last year.
We spoke to Andrew D. Ive, Founder and Managing General Partner of Big Idea Ventures, to find out more about his investment philosophies and the impact BIV hopes to achieve.
The BIV team in Singapore.
BCS: Why did you decide to start Big Idea Ventures? What drew you to investing in food tech?
Andrew: Prior to Big Idea Ventures, I had taken over responsibility for the world’s first and largest food tech accelerator, and we got to the point where we had about 800-1000 companies applying every year. Those companies were often very, very good, and I started to see a pattern in the plant and alternative protein space, that there was a kind of a significant opportunity for innovation. I also saw that consumers were becoming more and more interested in plant-based foods in all parts of the world.
There’s also a personal aspect as I was about to be 50 years old and I started to think about what I wanted my personal legacy to be (work-wise). How can I deploy the resources, network, knowledge, and experience from both the good things I’ve accomplished and the mistakes I’ve made to do something as significant as possible? That’s why I gravitated towards plant-based and cell-based food because I believe they are some of the solution to some of the challenges we face as a people.
BCS: BIV has offices in both New York and Singapore. What made you choose Singapore as a base?
Andrew: Interestingly, when I was between my first and second year at Harvard Business School, I took a summer job in Singapore. So in the summer of 1996, I spent five months working with IBM World Trade Asia and lived in Bay Shore on the East Coast, and loved my experience living and working in Singapre. The food was incredible. The climate was amazing. The people were fantastic. There was a path along the coast and I would run along it, beside the sea and appreciate nature. I’ve had a love for Singapore for quite some time.
But I was also really impressed with the strategic vision of Singapore as a country. How the Singaporean government has a goal of increasing food self-production to 30% by 2030, and how dedicated they are to delivering on that vision. They have the capability of thinking through everything that is needed to make this a reality, I haven’t seen that dedication and strategic thinking in many other places. It’s not just about making investments, but also understanding the entire supply chain and underlying parts of the food ecosystem. That’s what we do at Big Idea Ventures, work to build the ecosystem from the innovators all the way through to the consumers.
So it’s a combination of having lived there and being able to work with the government to build this amazing ecosystem of innovation around food. We have the capability to create a hub of innovation for Asia, that is not just relevant to Singapore, but has the ability to potentially impact other countries in the region.
BCS: How is BIV’s accelerator programme different from other food tech-focused accelerators in the region?
Andrew: There are many differences actually. When I ran the programme for the previous food tech accelerator, it was a three-month programme, and in my experience of investing in 40-50 different companies, I found that three months was too short. You would spend the first month or so understanding the fundamentals of that business and challenges they were facing. Then you spend the next three to four weeks trying to address those gaps. month would be get the companies ready for Demo Day, where they get on stage and pitch to investors, the press, etc.
I always felt at the end of that process that we were really just getting into it. For BIV we have basically just about doubled the length of time so that we’ve got two to three months in the middle where we can really work with the founding team and get that business strong and scaling, ready for domestic and international growth.
Another difference is with mentorship. Most accelerators will work with the companies on their strategy and their business model, right? All of that’s great. But when it comes to food, the food needs to be right. So on the Singapore team we’ve got three PhD food scientists who work closely with the companies on their recipe, ingredients, production methods, etc. We also have a very close relationship with experts in companies like Buhler, who truly understand how to not only innovate with food but ensure its scalable. We want to not only to make sure the product is good, but also to ensure it can be manufactured consistently at scale.
In addition, we’ve got a group of experts who really understand how to scale these companies. We set up the two offices thinking they would be independent programmes, but what happened is the experts and teams in New York are helping the Singapore-based businesses, and vice versa. There was a lot of cross-fertilisation that we didn’t anticipate. Our goal is to find companies who can have a global impact, so when we find great food companies we have the right relationships across the ecosystem to help them move into new markets with far less friction than other businesses. That’s really what the whole machine is about: bringing the resources and expertise to bear to help these companies become successful global businesses.
BCS: How can companies stand out when pitching to investment firms like BIV?
Andrew: We call ourselves Big Idea Ventures because we are looking for companies with a vision to impact globally. When we receive applications we ask questions like, is this something which can be successful around the world? Is the team strong? Are they committed? Are they passionate? One of the things that I’ve seen in companies and founding teams that do well is determination and an unwillingness to quit. When you start a company, it’s not always going to be fun. Sometimes it’s tough and stressful. There’s a challenging aspect to it, otherwise everyone would be entrepreneurs. So we look for team members who are committed, who are going to grind through the challenges, and who have a passion for what they’re doing.
When you start a company, it’s not always going to be fun. Sometimes it’s tough and stressful. There’s a challenging aspect to it, otherwise everyone would be entrepreneurs. So we look for team members who are committed, who are going to grind through the challenges, and who have a passion for what they’re doing.
– Andrew D. Ive, Founder of Big Idea Ventures
One of the interesting things for me, is sometimes I’ll read a deck or a company pitch and I’ll get a hair raising moment where I suddenly have this image of just how big of an impact the business could make. When I’m like, ‘Oh my God, if this company can actually do what I think they can do, then this is something that is going be global and help in many different ways, whether it’s climate or animals or personal health’. That ‘aha’ moment tells you there’s something pretty special here. It doesn’t happen often, but often enough to choose a great cohort every six months from around the world.
BCS: And when they do succeed it must be an amazing feeling to see the actual products on the shelf, and consumers cooking and eating them.
Andrew: So that happened to me for the first time at Procter and Gamble when I was an intern in my first job out of college – during the summer I persuaded them to let me build a product to fill a gap they had in their brand. I worked with different parts of the company to launch this new product. After the product was launched, I went to the store and just stood there and looked at it on the shelf. It was amazing that the product had been in my head, and here it was in the world. I stood there watching people as they bought the product. It was just the most amazing experience.
BCS: What’s your outlook on this industry in light of COVID-19? How can start-ups position themselves to take advantage of new opportunities in the changing consumer landscape?
Andrew: The benchmark of everything I ever did when launching a product or company was the consumer. As a founder you have a vision of what you want to create, but ultimately you need to translate that vision into something consumers love, want and need. If you’re smart, you engage with as many consumers as possible, and really listen to them, because it’s not just about your idea but about delivering something to market which consumers want to bring into their lives and consume. For me what I did was to interact with consumers around that initial idea to see how it needed to change.
If you’re smart, you engage with as many consumers as possible, and really listen to them, because it’s not just about your idea but about delivering something to market which consumers want to bring into their lives and consume.
So in terms of responding to COVID-19, the start point for founders should be the consumer. If consumers are changing how, what and where they are consuming, for example if they are not going into stores anymore, you have to follow that. If you always put the consumer first in everything you do with your company then you’re much more likely to be successful. So what companies should do to adapt to COVID-19 is start with the consumer, go where the consumer is, and create some kind of feedback loop so that they can improve their product offering, go to market strategy, pricing, etc in light of the new challenges and the new desires that people have because of COVID.
BCS: Finally, what big ideas are you excited to see develop over the next few years?
Andrew: I could literally spend hours talking to you about all the exciting things in food tech, and I don’t even know all of the things that the start-ups are out there developing. We get hundreds of applications and there are always surprises, of technologies I didn’t know existed or opportunities that blow my mind.
One thing we’re really interested in is the cell-based space. We’ve just made six or seven investments in companies focusing on various aspects of this, like developing plant-based growth factors as a way of accelerating cell-based alternatives, rather than using foetal bovine serum and that sort of thing. We’re also looking at ingredients that can be produced using cell-based methods, for example we’ve got a company that’s using technology to produce honey without bees. The first completely vegan honey and honey isn’t just a B2C product, it’s an ingredient that’s used in cosmetics, skincare, foods… so having a bio-fermentation process to develop quality honey is fundamentally impactful, for a multi-billion dollar industry. In the same way, I’m also interested in collagen and gelatine and other kinds of ingredients that are used to develop other food products. Cell-based seafood is also really exciting, as you know we were a very early investor in the amazing team at Shiok Meats.
We are also in the process of developing a second fund which will be more focused on food technology in the supply chain. We’re looking for the best companies with technologies to reduce CO2, plastics, water and waste and other challenges in food production so that we can create a more sustainable food system. I’d encourage any company in the plant-based, cell-based or food technology space which will allow us to meet our food needs with more efficiency and less of an impact on our climate and environment to reach out to us at Big Idea Ventures.